Phenotypes and Beauty
I find any sort of phenotypic anomaly intriguing because of its close, nearly inseparable association with beauty and sex. Like the “ugh factor” we discussed when talking about chimeras, there is an extremely visceral reaction to any type of physically noticeable anomaly in humans. It could be the extreme height difference of anchondroplasia or the distinctive facial features of Down’s syndrome that make us look twice, but in either case, our impression at first sight is exactly that: a reaction to how someone looks which draws its power from the tangible, physical difference than we can point out and classify as nonhuman-like simply because it is not the norm and the way we define things in our culture is by comparison to the norm. With these two genetic mutations, we have one condition which (with the exception of shorter life span) leaves the host’s cognitive faculties normal and another which leaves the host’s cognitive faculties aberrant. By now most people are familiar with the phenotypic manifestations of both anchondroplasia and Down’s syndrome and the respective cognitive effects on the affected individuals. Because of this common knowledge, we end up treating these two anomalies in different ways. Once we became familiar with anchondroplasia, we shy away from using the terms “midgets” or “dwarfs” because they are associated with the biases we held before we understood the condition. Once we became familiar with Down’s syndrome, we refrain from using the term “retarded” because of the same reason. As with any other condition / state of existence that carries a distinctive phenotypic property (abnormal or not), we have developed politically correct terms to replace ones that have become derogatory (PC racial nomenclature is an example of a set of terms attached to a phenotypic state of existence which arose out of the need to mask older terms used to classify people with distinctive physical features which we now consider “racial slurs”).
What I would like to imagine for the sake of this post is this: how would we react to phenotypic variation if we try to dispel all bias that associates a physical feature with a person’s cognitive faculty, area of origin etc. If we did not know how anchondroplasia or Down’s syndrome affects an individual, would we react differently towards them at first sight? I think of Benedict Lambert (of Mendel’s Dwarf) and how he views himself and others. The pinnacle of beauty to Dr. Lambert is a woman with a normal phenotype and though he doesn’t speak of attraction to other little people, I’m guessing he doesn’t find them very attractive as he finds himself hideous. Though Dr. Lambert lives in a world where the norm is a woman between 5 and 6 feet with slender but healthy features, we can’t help but ask the question if a certain image of human beauty is something that is hardwired into our brains through years of evolution or something that is defined by the culture we live in. While it is likely a mix of both, the extent to which one or the other is influences us is interesting to consider. For example, if I think of a physically beautiful person, I generally think of someone who displays physical attributes which are healthy, which naturally indicates healthy sexual reproduction, and in most cases these attributes gravitate towards the normal phenotype. There are some human attributes however, which I find beautiful that have nothing to do with health of an individual. In the case of art, beauty is an even more mysterious thing and has absolutely nothing to do with phenotypes or health or sex because we are dealing with objects and ideas, not people. All the same, we find ourselves describing art in a very similar way to attractive humans. We might even describe art as sexy.
Whether we’re talking about a person with anchondroplasia or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, we have something to say about its beauty and its sexiness, regardless of what it means or does. What a strange and powerful thing.